One of the comment threads has evolved into a referendum on the Reds’ decision to spend significant (as in, around league-average) money on veteran relievers like Stanton, Cormier, and Weathers. (Thankfully, we haven’t gotten to the point of debating guys like Brian Meadows, Kerry Ligtenberg, or Ricky Stone).

This article by John Perrotto in today’s BP touches on the subject, in looking at the money Cleveland and Baltimore spent on relievers this off-season.

The first thing to recognize is that relief work might be more important from a psychological perspective than just “X innings pitched.” Tribe Manager Eric Wedge said that he sees a lot of harm in “losing a series of games in the late innings. …When it happens over and over, it wears on you. Guys are human and sports are emotional. It’s not like we’re making widgets at XYZ Company. Guys start wondering what is going to happen next.”

I think everyone can understand that (and recognize that it’s a part of baseball that doesn’t directly show up on the box score). The question, though, is how do you best avoid those bullpen meltdowns and the resulting problems?

Perrotto starts with this:

Those who have crunched the numbers have proof that relief pitchers are a fungible commodity. No, that doesn’t mean the clubhouse guys forgot to wipe down the shower room. The numbers suggest that clubs should spend the fewest dollars on the bullpen, in no small part because relief pitchers’ performances fluctuate so much from year to year, and a good arm worthy of providing 80-90 innings can be found on the cheap.

That sounds eminently logical to me. But there’s also a competing view:

“I know people say one of the worst things you can do is spend a lot of money on free-agent relievers, but I think it made a lot of sense in our case,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “There is no greater (area of) volatility on your roster than the bullpen, so I think it pays to try to find the most consistent relievers you can, guys you can count on.”

This makes sense, too. The question is still how do you find those “guys you can count on”?

“One of the lessons we learned is that you can’t rely on too many young kids in the bullpen,” Wedge said. “You need guys you can count on from one outing to the next.”

I don’t know if Wedge is making an assumption, or reciting a lesson learned the hard way (that younger pitchers are more erratic than expensive free agents). It might be true, or maybe it was just the particular young pitchers he had last year. Or, and this is a legitimate point: Players are more willing to put up with a meltdown from a veteran, so the psychological impact is less.

In our case, consider Coffey and Weathers. Both had a chance to close last year, and neither was very impressive. I thought, though, that Weathers lasted longer in a high-leverage role. A quick look at the numbers shows that they were pretty similar, and Coffey may have actually pitched a little better: Weathers (ERA 3.84) had 7 blown saves against 12 saves and 9 holds. Coffey (3.58) had 5 blown saves against 9 saves and 18 holds. My recollection is that the manager and team had much more confidence and comfort in Weathers. From a manager’s perspective, that’s typical: There are much fewer questions to ask when your “proven closer” takes a beating. From the players’ perspective, maybe they’d give Weathers a little more benefit of the doubt, and not get down over a couple bad outings.

I don’t know the answer to this question, and reasonable minds certainly seem to differ. If I had to state an opinion, I’d say that truly superior, reliable relievers are worth a premium price, but that the vast majority of these guys have a short shelf life, so you’d better not invest much time or money in them. I’ll be looking at the results this year, and over the next few.

7 Responses

  1. Mr. Redlegs

    It all comes down to one simple fact: Relievers with track histories of success will always have the comfort zone, with wider margins for error, of management.

  2. Shawn

    I think you have to have two or three relievers with solid track records. On the Reds, that would be Coffey and Bray. You can spend a couple spots on guys who haven’t had a shot yet.

  3. preach

    I think it is important to have the right mix of youth and experience. We definately have a mix….I just kinda wish the mix was made with a few different ingredients.

  4. Joel

    You have listed Coffey’s career numbers versus Weathers 2006 there, Chris. Coffey actually had 8 saves, 4 blown, and 15 holds last year.

    As an aside, I hate the blown save stat. One of Coffey’s blown saves was in the 6th inning and one was in the 7th. It makes it look like he was a much worse closer than he actually was. Only one of Weathers’s blown saves came before the 8th inning (7/22 against MIL in the 6th). I prefer Coffey at closer over Weathers, but then that may be because I was present for 3 of Weathers’s blown saves. That kind of ruins a night for you.

  5. Mr. Redlegs

    Shawn, what track records do Coffey and Bray have?

    Is this the same premise by which you stated on another blog that five-man rotations have been around all along?

    I dunno what baseball history you’re looking at, but Stengel, who is widely accepted as being instigator of the platoon system and the five-man rotation, to much criticism from the pitchers, would like to have a word with you from the grave.

    The five-man really didn’t become a staple until the 162-game schedule and, then, in full force, expansion.

    Otherwise, they were “spot” starters for mostly doubleheaders, tired arms and such for about 8-12 games.

  6. The Mad Hatter

    Coffey and Bray have no track record except for inconsistency. That’s the area that needs improvement on this team. Last year Weathers was as consistent as the weather. Good one month, rainy next, cloudy, warmer. It isn’t just the younger members of this pen that exhibit inconsistency. Stanton for as well as he did in San Fran last year was by no means consistent from team to team or ballpark to ballpark.

    I do believe that if the younger half of the bullpen steps up this year that the team would be in it again. But at the same time you need the veterans but not in the role they’ll be used this year. Just my opinion